As Castleton students trudged through campus in the early spring snow and slush, itching for their impending spring break, a group of nursing students got a head start on the journey to warmer climates.
However, this trip was not one of slinky bikinis and the cheapest brews a semester of saving bottle return money can buy. Instead, this group of students was on a medical mission to Honduras through the Global Brigades Holistic Development Program in which they provided medical and dental care to more than 700 Honduran villagers.
"The experience gave me insight in an entirely different way of life, an appreciation for the health care system and amenities we have in America," said senior Katie Holden.
According to nursing professor Margaret Young, Honduras was chosen because it is the second poorest nation in Latin America, behind only Nicaragua.
"Sixty percent of the people live below the poverty line," she said.
Young also said that cramped and unsanitary living conditions caused by this extreme poverty rate results in a tripled rate of infantile deaths annually compared to the United States.
Prior to the trip, the students had to update their immunizations and verify their shot records because of the bacteria and disease they would be exposed to. Additionally, for the entirety of their stay, armed security guards accompanied them.
"It was a little intimidating when they showed up with their machine guns," said senior Sarah Eichner.
Over the course of a week, the group held three clinic days in the villages of La Cienga and Juanquillos where they worked directly with villagers and held dental, pharmacy, education, and gynecological stations.
Student trip leader Kylah Livingston and senior Brooke Ann Boomhover said they were able to provide a month’s worth of medical supplies to each patient as well as hygiene packs containing soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.
According to senior Josh Levandowski, the majority of their first day was spent with pharmacists sorting the suitcases full of medications they brought with them.
"We had to re-label everything in Spanish," he said. "It was a long day of sorting but at the end we had the treat of going to the orphanage and seeing the children there."
Holden said the orphanage, run by Global Brigades, was where the foundation’s owner grew up and was an empowering kick-start to the mission.
"Their faces just lit right up," she said.
The following day, the group set up their first clinic where they said they were swarmed with people in need of medical attention.
Although a few students studied Spanish to prepare for the experience, they unanimously agreed the language barrier was one of the obstacles to overcome.
Senior Ethan Klauzenberg recalled his encounter with an elderly woman whose triage information he gathered.
"I don’t speak Spanish very well and she didn’t speak any English so we really had to work together to get all the information I needed," he said. "She laughed at me a lot during the whole process and at the end she smiled, gave me a hug, kissed me on the cheek and thanked me. There was something really familiar about her sense of humor and it made me appreciate how laughter transcends culture and language. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that."
The group said the most common symptoms they saw were bone aches, and the common cold and flu. They also said that although patients were being seen for current issues, it was evident they were planning for their futures, especially those with children.
"They were also stocking up for what they might need in the next three months," Young said.
Livingston said that because most of their patients cannot afford sunglasses, they also saw a great deal of eye issues. She recalled one albino child who was suffering from a severe eye condition and could not afford his own pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes.
"His eyes were almost crusted shut," Eichner said.
After seeing this child, a member of the Brigade from Wisconsin gave him her own sunglasses.
"He was just ecstatic," said Livingston.
Additionally, the group held a Children’s Charla, where senior Sarah Alexander said the group focused on teaching children proper dental hygiene. She said the group was surrounded with children who had never experienced the luxury of a toothbrush and consequently their teeth hung rotting in their mouths.
"In the day I was there, we saw over 100 kids in an hour that we kept track of," she said.
The group accepted the challenge in strides and taught the children brushing techniques, entertained them while they waited in lines for programs, and provided them with dental supplies.
"We had hundreds of pages of coloring books for them," Holden said.
"Stickers are like gold to them," added Livingston.
The children echoed their excitement and marveled over the gifts of the Castleton Brigade.
"Kids would get in line and get their supplies and get right back in line. Either they were stocking up or they had brothers and sisters they were getting things for," Alexander said.
Others chose to forgo the line and took more creative measures.
"They were hanging from the trees," Eichner said.
Not every day was as lighthearted and entertaining as the Children’s Charla, however. Castleton’s Peruvian nursing major, Marilyn Nulsen doubled as a translator and a nurse in the gynecology clinic.
Nulsen said they saw not only women who had been exposed to harmful bacteria, but also those suffering from conditions like cervical cancer.
"We had one patient who was 16-years-old. She was pregnant and she had HIV," she said.
The nurses took pride in their insistence to see each person who sought their care. They anticipated the long days, but not the amount of supplies needed to provide the amount of care needed.
"We were able to see everyone," Nulsen said. "The last couple pap smears we didn’t have gloves. I had to use plastic bags."
Despite the shortage of supplies, the group said the villagers were thankful for any care they able to provide. One villager told Livingston after a clinic that they felt if they had their health, they had everything.
In their April 24 presentation of their experience in the Alumni Room of Huden Dining Hall many members of the group said they would undoubtedly accept another opportunity like this in their futures. Livingston said she hopes to return as an alumnus and guide other Castleton students through the experience.
"Now after this experience I feel more motivated to keep helping people," Nulsen said.
Levandowski reflected on the changes of his professional perspective since he has returned to the Green Mountains.
"We’re so technological focused here," he said. "You go down there and you just have to go down to the basics."
He said the experience taught him the value of being able to provide basic needs to make his patients as comfortable as possible when in his care.
President Dave Wolk took the opportunity to address the group following their presentation.
"So impressive. So heartwarming," he said. "I’m so proud of you. We all are."